The last episode of the Unbelievable? Podcast (May 21, 2022) featured Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins on Biology, Belief and Covid: Can science and faith be reconciled? Justin Brierly has set the standard for facilitating thoughtful, civil conversations on opposing views of the world, like faith and atheism.
In this particular conversation, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and well-known scientist who professes religious faith, just finished explaining briefly why he came to believe in God at the age of 27. Richard Dawkins, the very well-known scientist and “new atheist”, responded this way:
“If I were God and I wanted to create life, maybe even human life, which is part of the expectation of a religious person, I think I would not use such a wasteful, long-drawn-out process. I think I would just go for it. Why would you choose natural selection, which has the possibly unfortunate property that it could have come about without you? Why would God have chosen a mechanism to unfold His design and chose the very mechanism that would make Him superfluous?
Dawkins speculated that God might have thought, “I wonder what would happen if I set up a primeval, self-replicating molecule and leave it to see what happens.” Dawkins called such an experiment “interesting” and sympathized with the thought of God experimenting in that way. Then he added, “If I wanted to make complex life, I wouldn’t choose that astonishingly wasteful, profligate – cruel actually – way of doing it.”
Dawkins focused on the suffering that comes from competition and evading starvation. He focused on the weeding out process of some animals starving to death, being eaten by predators and succumbing to disease. Dawkins summarized, “It is not a benign process at all.”
Dawkins admitted that this line of thinking is “not a good argument”, but it is what “struck” him as Francis Collins was talking. Indeed, I have heard Richard Dawkins say similar things in debate and in his writings. This line of thinking is obviously compelling to him, good argument or not.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Dawkins. I am not here to blast him or judge him. We all have a judge, I believe, and it isn’t me!
Dawkins is not an ignorant man, obviously. He is a foremost scientist who is a very poignant and elegant communicator and champion of the evolutionary paradigm. His many books and body of work speak to his exceptional intelligence. As people go, he is at the top of the food chain in scientific knowledge and understanding.
Francis Collins is good company for Dawkins, having advanced the relatively new science and understanding of human DNA, perhaps, further than any person before him. Yet, these two men have diametrically opposed views of whether God exists. Neither of them is an intellectual slouch.
I am writing, though, on what Richard Dawkins said. Just as Dawkins was “struck” by what Collins said to respond in the way he did, I am struck to respond by what Dawkins said.
His instinct or intuition or line of thought – whatever you want to call it – was to consider, “If I were God….” Dawkins gravitated toward comparing what he would do if he were God and the world as it exists. Dawkins’s point is, ultimately, that he finds the world as it exists not to live up to what he would have created if he were God.
Let’s examine that line of thinking.
Interesting. A scientist typically doesn’t ask those questions or speculate in that way. If any evidence exists to suggest that God exists, it doesn’t advance an understanding of that God or His world to speculate that “I would have done things differently”.
Science doesn’t approach things that way. A more scientific way of approaching the proposition of God and the world He created would be to seek understanding in light of the way things are – not what they might have been.
Dawkins’ line of thinking is not a scientific approach to the question. He is self-aware enough to admit it isn’t a good argument, though he apparently, still, finds it compelling, as he often repeats similar statements in debates and in what he writes.
I am not saying here that science can prove (or disprove) the existence of God. In fact, I don’t think it can. Perhaps, Dawkins abandons a scientific way of thinking on the question because he recognizes the same deficiency of science.
When I say “deficiency”. I do not mean to criticize science. It’s just that science is limited, by its very definition, to the study of the natural world. God (on the Christian view), if He exists, is not of the natural world. He is separate and apart from it. He is timeless, immaterial and Other than the natural world. We should not expect to find God in the natural world any more than we should expect to find a painter in a painting.
I could say much about the line of thinking Dawkins employs, but I will simply say this: that our view on God depends to a large degree on who we trust. Do we trust ourselves to be the ultimate determiners and arbiters of truth?
Dawkins seems to trust himself and his reasoning power implicitly. Further, I don’t think I am going out on a limb to say that Dawkins doesn’t trust Francis Collins quite so much as he trusts himself.
As for scientific acumen and accomplishment, we would be hard-pressed to say that one of those men is greater and has more reasoning power than the other. It may be that the IQ of one is greater than the other, but the difference isn’t readily apparent. The difference, if there is any, is likely to be only in the slightest degree.
We can compare human beings to human beings and scale the relative intelligence of human beings, as far as we can measure it. We (human beings) certainly have more intellectual capacity and reasoning power than any other living beings that we know to exist in the universe. At the same time, we must concede that we do not what we do not know.
We must concede that we are finite beings who, as a species, showed up in the universe only very, very recently. We would be foolish to claim that we can even quantify our knowledge and reasoning power compared to the totality of knowledge available and all the reasoning power that could possibility exist.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
In that light, any statement followed by the words, “If I were God…”, is not just a poor argument. It’s a fool’s errand. Why should we trust ourselves to know what we would do, or should do, if we were God?
We quite obviously are not God. We are not even gods!
None of us will live to be more than 110 years old. What is 110 years in the context of 13.7 billion years that we believe (for all the knowledge that we presently understand) to be the age of the universe?
The entire history of mankind is approximately 10,000 years, unless we want to consider primitive cave art “history”. Maybe we can tack on another 50,000 years of human history if we consider cave art to be human history. Then we have to ask: What is 50,000 years compared to the 13.7 billion year history of the universe?!
Why should we trust ourselves to know – to speculate – about how God would or should do things? Such speculation certainly shouldn’t be a determiner of whether God exists. What we might have done is quite beside the point.
Perhaps, a clue lies in these questions. Perhaps, a clue is implied in the very line of reasoning that Dawkins employees – questioning the existence of a creator because Dawkins wouldn’t have done things the way they are.
Human beings are proud, arrogant, and self-centered creatures (myself included). We tend to be dismissive of others and others’ ideas. We tend to want to rely on ourselves over trusting others, even to our own detriment at times. We have more confidence in ourselves than we ought to have. Any parent can see these tendencies in their own children (and we all believe we “know better”).
The Bible says human beings were created in God’s own image. Thus, the Bible has an explanation for why we feel this way. We are, indeed, created with greater capacities than other living beings, so we naturally think quite highly of ourselves. (On the evolutionary paradigm, we might even have greater reason to laud ourselves, having out-competed all other creatures for the top rung on the food chain.)
But, we are only creatures at the end of the day. We are not gods. We are from dust and to dust we will return. “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19)
Yet, we implicitly feel differently about ourselves. Even if we say that humans are not extraordinary, and we do not live on an extraordinary planet in an extraordinary solar system in an extraordinary universe, our trust in our own human abilities to reason and determine truth tells a different story.
We are proud, arrogant, and self-reliant despite all reason to the contrary. We are such that we would dare to say that God doesn’t exist, because if God did exist, he wouldn’t do it this way. As if we would know!
Here is the clue: humans beings live only 110 years (at most); we have documented our own history for only about 10,000 years; we have lived as a species (homo sapiens) only around 300,000 years (at most), which is only 0.008% of the time life has existed on Earth and only about 0.002% of the time the universe has existed – yet we presume to know better about how the universe should have been created!
We are proud, arrogant, self-centered, and extremely overconfident in our finite abilities. Given that fact, the Bible’s anecdote is perfect:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”Ephesians 2:8-9
The salvation the Bible claims God offers us is the great humbler. It is the great leveler of the proud, arrogant, and self-centered tendencies we have as human beings. It is nothing we can earn, nothing of which we can boast, and nothing we can attribute to ourselves.
Dawkins’ line of reasoning for not believing in God, itself, suggests our very need for God.
Now consider his reasoning again: why would God create such a vast universe with so much “wasted” space in which the fierce competition of the fittest reminds us of our own insignificance when we candidly assess ourselves and our true abilities? Maybe God created such a universe in which beings created in His own image would live so that we might come to acknowledge that we are not the gods we are tempted to think we are.
Even then, were are still inclined to think that way.
To be sure, our need for God is not proof of God’s existence. Our pride, arrogance, self-centeredness, and over-confidence is not proof of God’s existence either. It’s interesting, though, and it’s interesting that the Bible’s prescription for “salvation” fits like an anecdote to that condition.